- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A man who was drunk while driving his employer’s van has been charged with third-degree murder for causing a wrong-way crash that killed a western Pennsylvania police lieutenant, state police said Thursday.

Clair Fink III, 32, of Ligonier, was driving eastbound in the westbound lanes of U.S. Route 30 - a divide highway about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh - when he hit Lt. Eric Eslary’s patrol SUV head-on at about 2 a.m. on May 5.

The crash killed the 17-year-veteran officer instantly and seriously injured Eslary’s K-9 companion, a German shepherd. The dog, named Blek, has recovered from serious injuries but is not currently performing police work and still lives with Eslary’s widow and their six children.

Fink’s blood-alcohol content was 0.197 percent - more than double the state’s legal limit of 0.08 percent, according to the criminal complaint, details of which were first reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Fink’s co-worker, Derek Gifford, 22, was also in the van. He told police he and Fink clocked out of work at a pool and spa installation business near Irwin at about 7 p.m. on May 4 and then drank most of an 18-pack of 16-ounce beers and stopped at a strip club.

Fink and Gifford left the strip club at about 12:40 a.m., based on surveillance video and employees who told police it took Fink a couple of minutes to remove his ID from the wallet when he was carded at the door. One employee said Fink was a “mess,” and surveillance video also showed Fink staggering in the parking lot, police said.

Gifford estimated Fink drank seven to nine beers and that Fink’s driving “started to get worse” after they left the strip club. The club is more than 20 miles from the crash scene, which the men got to after stopping at a convenience store for a snack, police said.

Gifford told police Fink hit roughly 15 to 20 traffic cones along a road construction site on the way to store, and told Gifford he was drunk.

Police filed the third-degree murder charge - rare even in drunken-driving fatalities - because they believe Fink killed Eslary “recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life,” the complaint said. The charge, the most serious Fink faces, carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 to 40 years.

Shortly before the crash, Gifford said he told Fink that he was weaving out of his lane. But Gifford told police he was using his cellphone and wasn’t familiar with the area, so he didn’t realize that Fink had somehow moved from the eastbound lanes to the westbound side of the highway.

Blood drawn from Fink at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown also showed Fink had marijuana in his system, police said.

Fink was in custody awaiting arraignment on the murder charge and counts including vehicular homicide while driving drunk, drunken driving, and citations including reckless driving.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether he has an attorney.

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